September 10, 2012

Making up nomenclature for a fantasy story

A guest post by Heidi C. Vlach

In our modern Earth lives, we have words for concepts that we don't actually consider to exist. Stuff like dragons, magic and demons. Those familiar words can make us feel like we already understand things we've never seen.
But sometimes a fantasy writer wants to create something new -- an animal, a metal, a scholarly subject, a type of energy. That new thing will need a name. And, of course, the new name should sound believable. When fantasy nomenclature sounds like some goofy word an author made it up, it can ruin a reader's suspension of disbelief. Good fantasy nomenclature, on the other hand, blends seamlessly into its story.

Here are a few techniques that help create good fantasy names:

1) Take a familiar word and use it in a new context. Example: a story where a "rotten" is a type of zombie. The familiar word carries a lot of information, so the reader doesn't need to be told that "swarms of rottens walking the streets" is a bad thing. We already know that "rotten" means something bad and unpleasant. And once we learn that a "rotten" is a rotting zombie, it'll make even more sense.

2) Put existing words together to make a portmanteau. Example: calling a small, flying animal a "batlark". This method also uses familiar, meaningful words, but it has room for new meanings. A batlark doesn't have to be a literal combination of bat and bird. Consider the pineapple, which got its English name because of its spiny exterior and edible inside. It isn't strongly similar to a pine cone or an apple -- but the name still stuck.

3) Modify rare vocabulary words, or root words from other languages. Example: calling an wise sect of teachers a "sesqui", Latin for "one and a half". If the reader isn't familiar with the word, they can just assume it's a made-up fantasy word. But readers who know the term "sesquipedalian" will find it amusing if the sesqui teachers use big vocabulary words at every opportunity. This method is a gamble, since not all readers will understand the reference. But those readers who do catch on (or use Google) will get extra entertainment value.

4) Just invent a combination of syllables. Example: a field of study called "ferlifan". This is the riskiest method, since words that look like gibberish can seem very artificial. But an unfamiliar word can be used in the author's favour. If a highly educated character scoffs that the farmboy protagonist "probably doesn't even know any ferlifan", the reader will empathize because they don't know, either. Just be careful that your invented word seems like an actual, pronounceable word, not like you fell asleep on the keyboard and decided to keep that "ksjfkj'fbj'dhrbg" part in your manuscript.
Which method is best? That depends on the effect you want your fantasy term to have. Should the term seem like a basic, approachable concept, or should it seem intimidating? Should the fantasy term remind the reader of an existing concept? Do characters associate the fantasy term with something else (a bird that symbolizes royalty? A style of magic associated with joy? A gemstone offered to the gods to bring rain?) If you know what your invented term should bring to mind, it'll be easier to find an appropriate root word to work from.

Be careful, though -- an invented word should seem like it belongs in its culture. If your fantasy realm is strongly inspired by medieval Japan and it shuns outsiders, it would seem strange to throw one Latin-sounding word into the magic spells. That's the sort of disconnect that makes make the reader lose faith in the author's skills. On the other hand, if your setting is a bustling port town that sees lots of travellers, it's believable that the local vocabulary would sound like 15 different languages mashed together.

Fantasy names aren't always easy to create. You might need to try out dozens of word variations before you find one that clicks. Personally, I surf Wikipedia for hours, looking for obscure concepts and historical terms to borrow. But once you find that fitting nomenclature, it can help make your fantasy story truly iconic.

Heidi C. Vlach

is a Canadian fantasy author.
She is currently writing the stories of Aligare, a fantasy series set in a human-free world of magic and legends.

Connect with Heidi on Twitter: @hcvlach
or visit her blog:

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